What I learned interning in a Community College classroom

In Fall 2014, I entered the Faculty Diversity Internship Program (FDIP) at the Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento, California. I’ve already written about the first phase of the program, which consisted of 6 day-long workshops covering a range of topics related to college teaching and the community college environment. The second phase of the internship is basically a student-teaching experience, where interns are placed into a class at one of the Los Rios colleges for a full semester to observe an experienced instructor, teach, and get feedback from the instructor and students. I completed my internship in BIOL310 (General Biology with lab for non-majors) at American River College, under the guidance of Dr. Rick Topinka.

The internship experience was great – Rick was flexible and willing to let me do as much teaching as I was comfortable with. I learned a lot about college teaching in general and about what to expect from teaching at a community college in particular. Here are some of my main takeaways from the experience:

1. Community college students are highly diverse in terms of academic preparation.

The course that I interned in had no prerequisites, so that meant we had a huge range of students. Some of our students were extremely well-prepared – they had recently had high school biology courses, had taken college-level chemistry and mathematics, and had strong set of academic skills. These students were equal to or better than the best undergraduates I’ve taught at UC Davis. At the other end of the spectrum, there were students in their first semester or two of college, who had very little STEM preparation (some had not even taken high school biology), and who needed help with basic tasks such as calculating ratios and graphing. This diversity means that teaching approaches need to both engage the brightest students, but also lift up those students that might struggle initially.

2. The motivations of community college students are diverse

I found that our students had a range of motivations that was broader than that I had previously encountered with undergraduates. Some of our students were recent high school graduates who were attending college as the logical next step in their education – these students seem to have similar motivations as UC Davis undergraduates and were often unsure of their career plans. The majority of our students were somewhat older – in their mid to late-twenties – and were working full or part-time jobs. These students were strongly motivated to complete their degrees and improve their lives – they also tended to have much clearer career goals. We even had a student who had recently retired from the military and was taking the class for fun (which is awesome).

3. Breaking up lectures with active learning activities is highly effective.

Prior to the internship, I had read a lot about the positive impact of incorporating active learning into lectures. The benefits of these approaches were borne out by my experiences in the classroom. Dr. Topinka makes extensive use of worksheets and problem sets. He would typically lecture for 20 or 30 minutes, then ask students to work on problems for 10 or 15 minutes, followed by discussion and more lecture. Not only does this approach address the issue of flagging attention spans and keep students engaged, it also allows the professor to work with struggling students one-on-one, which is critical given the lower levels of preparation of some of the students. When it came time for me to teach, I not only incorporated worksheets, but also “think-pair-share” questions. I found these to be useful for gauging whether students understand a concept, thus dictating whether I should move on or reteach the concept.

4. The internship program is a great way to get an adjunct faculty position

One of the primary functions of the FDIP program is to prepare interns for taking their first adjunct position within the district. This worked out well for both myself and my fellow intern Amanda – after completing the internship, we both interviewed for and got adjunct faculty positions teaching BIO310 in fall 2015. Besides giving you an edge in the interview process, the internship helps ensure that your first experience as a lead instructor is as smooth as possible. When I started teaching BIOL310 in fall 2015, I had already seen the course, had a set of materials I could build on, and had the confidence of having already taught parts of the course.

I conclusion, I had a great experience with both parts of the FDIP program. I highly recommend the program to graduate students in the Sacramento area who are interested in exploring a career in community college teaching, want to gain practical teaching experience and training, or want to set themselves up to get an adjunct teaching position.

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